February 20, 2013

Music Technology Review: MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset

If you're like me then more and more you listen to music through headphones. So, the old adage that your stereo system is only as good as your speakers should now be amended to your sound system is only as good as your headphones. It seems like audio companies are finally starting to catch up and make this connection. Seven years ago when I first started reviewing music you could either buy a pair of really cheap things to stick in your ears or wrap around your head, or pay a fortune and buy the equivalent of what was being used in recording studios. Aside from the price the drawbacks with the latter were their lack of portability and the fact you usually had to buy an adaptor so they could patch into a headphone jack.

Fast forward to present day and your faced with the dilemma of being spoiled for choices. You go into any electronics outlet store and you'll find row upon row of headphones, ear pieces, ear buds and whatever other names manufactures have come up with for them. The bells and whistles alone are confusing enough. Is your device bluetooth or wireless? Do you need a microphone? Do you want something to fit inside your ear, around your ear or over your head and over your ear? Does colour matter, ease of carrying when your not using them? It almost seems like sound quality is less a consideration then the extras.

Maybe the truth of the matter is within a certain price range there's not much difference from one set of headphones to another when it comes to sound quality. Oh sure some might offer ways of boosting either the bass or the treble singles, but that doesn't really have anything to do with its ability to transmit sound. For under a $100.00 the only differences you're going to find from one company's set to another are the extras, right? Well, that's what I thought, of course I haven't listened to all the sets on the market, but after sampling a fair range and not noticing any difference I had started to come to that conclusion. However, at the high end of that price range, listing at $99.99, the A161P In-Ear Headset from MEElectronics, showed me something different.
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My requirements from a set of headphones are probably a lot simpler than most people's. I don't care if its bluetooth or wireless, I couldn't care less about the built in microphone or any of the other hands free technology employed for smart phones. I'm looking for two things, ease of use and sound quality. I hate having to fiddle around with fancy ear pieces that have to be slotted into my ear in a certain way or, even worse, have to be constantly adjusting the ear buds because they're either hurting my ears or falling out. One of the first things you'll notice about the A161P is that they don't assume everyone's ear canal is the same size. Each pair comes with six sets of differently shaped and sized easily interchangeable cones. It takes only a matter of seconds to find a pair to fit your ears.

You also have the option of slipping wire guides onto the cable that will allow you to hook the buds over your ears to help hold them in place. I'm not a big fan of the over the ear hooks - no matter what anybody says when you wear glasses they feel awkward - so being able to choose whether I wanted to use them or not was a plus. I decided to give them a try, and discovered not only did they help secure the buds in my ear, they were far easier to use than any I had employed in the past and they didn't interfere with my glasses. At least they didn't make it feel like my glasses were about to be fall off my head all the time.

When it comes to performance I want my ear phones to provide crisp and clean sound which allows me to hear each instrument and the vocals as distinct elements. I don't want my eardrums ruptured with mega bass or my eyes popping out of my head because the treble is too shrill. I want to hear the music as close to how it was recorded as possible. The first thing that happened when I started using the A161P headset was I had to turn the volume on my music player down. I was thrilled. Too many times in the past I've been forced to crank up the volume of whatever player I've been using simply to hear the music. The A161P have so little interference I was able to turn the volume down by at least half and still hear the music clearly while wearing them while walking beside a busy street. I wasn't even listening to loud music either.

After recovering from that pleasant surprise I began to notice what I was listening to. The sound was perfectly balanced. No matter what I listened to, jazz, folk, rock or classical there was a depth of field which allowed me to hear all the instruments in their proper proportions. In the past I've had headphones which may have had no trouble handling pop music, but the complexities of jazz and classical would defeat them. It was like they couldn't handle the number of instruments employed and the sound around the edges would turn to mud. That wasn't the case with A161P.
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No matter where an instrument was in the mix you could hear it. Even better was the fact each instrument was properly balanced so you heard them in the right proportions. I can't begin to tell you the number of headphones and speakers I've had which grab every sound they hear and then flatten them all onto the same wavelength. Phil Spector would have loved the wall of sound they made. Thankfully that wasn't the case with the A161P. Whatever technology they employ has the ability to recognize and differentiate between a sufficient variety of sound waves and recording levels it sounds like you're listening to a song straight out of a mixing board.

What I even appreciated more was they just didn't simply boost the mid ranges and turn down the highs and lows in an attempt to bring you a balanced sound field. It didn't seem to matter what range the lead instrument or lead vocalist played or sang in for them to be placed front and centre in the mix. So even if a vocalist was singing in the same pitch as the bass guitar their voice would still stand out and the bass would still stay firmly in the background laying down the rhythm track. Now that may not sound like much to some of you, but when the same technology is applied across the entire sound spectrum it makes for some the finest quality sound you've heard in a long time.

The MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset also comes with some very intelligent accessories which I've not seen included in other sets before. Aside from the variety of ear buds and the optional wire guides, they also come with an adaptor cable for smart phones. Some smart phones have different frequency out puts and this jack helps compensate for any sound distortion this might cause. The second adaptor is a splitter which allows you to plug the headset into both the headphone and microphone jacks on your equipment. It's always driven me crazy that so many of these new headsets come with a "built in microphone" but you're not given any way of utilizing it. Finally someone has had the brains to include the means for you to plug into your computer, or other device with both inputs. They've also included a nice hard shell clam case for storing the headset in, although to be honest, once you've attached them to your player I don't see you wanting to disconnect them any time soon.

Anyone whose gone shopping for headphones recently knows just how crowded the field is these days. For a non wireless set under a hundred dollars I don't think you're going to find much to match the A161P in terms of sound quality, options and ease of use. To say I was pleasantly surprised by how good the sound was would be putting it mildly. They may not have as many bells and whistles as some but if you care about what your music sounds like, what they deliver in terms of quality of sound reproduction more than makes up for anything else.

(Article first published as Product Review: MEElectronics A161P In-Ear Headset on Blogcritics)

January 14, 2013

Music Site Review: Concert Vault

There was once a time when the only way you could get hold of the pop music you liked was by visiting a record store. If you didn't own either a record player or a tape deck of some kind the only way to listen to your favourite music was the radio. Which meant you were at the mercy of whatever your local station played. So if you didn't like the top 40 of the day you were usually out of luck. As for seeing your favourite band perform, that was only possible if they happened to go on tour and show up in your home town. If they were really popular they might show up on a television variety show and lip sync to one or two of their songs.

Prior to the 1980s, MTV and Much Music there was precious little live music on television in North America. The one or two shows, The Midnight Special and Rock Concert, to feature bands in concert were on late at night and the sound was usually crap as it was coming through your television's single tinny speaker. While advances in video and digital technology gave us more access to music through an increased variety of sources, we were still limited by the technology available for playing and transmitting. If you were lucky enough your television might have been able to hook up to your stereo, but the signal being broadcast was still only mono so you weren't much further ahead in terms of quality.

Everything changed with the Internet. First there was file sharing with sites like Napster allowing people to upload and download their favourite music. When the record companies panicked at the thought of losing control over their product they moved to quickly shut these sites down until they could figure out how to get their piece of the pie. Now the dust has settled on that front, there are a seemingly infinite number of sites out there allowing you to download and stream music (listen to online) or watch videos and concerts. However, like in the bad old days of top 40 radio, the majority of them seem to fixate on what is popular. If you have somewhat eclectic tastes finding one source to satisfy a craving for music of all genres and from all eras is as difficult as it ever has been.
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Thankfully there are some sites out there which take into account not everybody can be fit into the same round peg. One of the newest to launch specializes in audio and video of live concerts of all genres of popular music. Concert Vault is the brain child of Bill Sagan, best known as the CEO and founder of the music site Wolfgang's Vault. As with Wolfgang's Vault the bulk of the material on Concert Vault is taken from the archives of arguably the man who was the greatest promoter of popular music in the 20th century, Bill Graham. Sagan purchased the archive a number of years ago and has been finding new ways of putting it in the public's hands ever since.

At first glance Concert Vault is a little overwhelming. There are literally so many options available to a user it's difficult to know where to begin. However, Sagan and company have gone to a lot of effort to try and give you a variety of ways to experience the site. There's no way to make this embarrassment of riches easy to navigate, but if you take a couple of deep breaths and a few moments to get over your excitement, you'll find they have done the best job possible under the circumstances. First of all they've divided content up into eight distinct channels: rock, blues, jazz, country, folk/bluegrass, indie and interviews. There is also a separate channel for video only, which is itself divided up into the seven channels mentioned above. Of course you can also browse the site by performers through their A - Z index or check out their variety of themed playlists which gathers together selections from the vault.

Of course you always have the option of creating your own playlist or even queuing up a variety of concerts to play one after another in the "Queue" section of the site. While I'm not thrilled with sites that force you to use their own download managers (with the recent warnings about the threat to Java Script they might want to find another format anyway) I can understand their desire to control access and why they've chosen to go this route. The manager was easy to install and use and I had no problems downloading the concert I wanted (The Talking Heads live at Heatwave 1980 - brilliant, first introduction of their extended funk line up)

The first thing you should do is probably purchase a membership. While not necessary to stream product, it does ensure you unlimited access. You can either buy a monthly membership for $2.99 or pay an annual fee of $29.99. For that price you are given full access to the entire archive - non-members are limited in what they can view and listen to, unlimited streaming on all web browsers and mobile devices, special curated features and playlists for each of the seven music channels, the most you'll ever pay to download anything will be $5.00 and an annual credit of $24.00 against all purchases made at the Wolfgang's Vault Store. An extra $20.00 annually buys you a VIP membership. Honestly the only reason you'd want this is if you're planning on purchasing memorabilia from the store as it buys you a 10% discount and free domestic ground shipping.

Still the annual fee is a bargain even when you factor in having to maybe pay $5.00 for downloading an entire concert. Consider the fact it will cost you a minimum of something like $9.99 to download an album of music from iTunes and you can see how inexpensive this is. On top of that you're going to be downloading concerts you're not going to find anywhere else in the world - literally. Where else can you download the last concert ever given by the Sex Pistols and then flip a page and listen to Bill Monroe or Miles Davis.

What's even better is this isn't just a site for Boomers looking to relive their youth by downloading a Grateful Dead concert. Concert Vault also has wide variety of independent bands and you can listen to everybody from The Cowboy Junkies, REM to The Old 97's. Or check out some of the newer bands you might not have heard of before like Allah -Las, Alabama Shakes or Winter Sounds.

However, what makes Concert Vault special is the depth and breadth of historical recordings it puts at your disposal. To make a full inventory of what's available on the site would take weeks, but judging by the couple of skims I've made of its content I doubt you'll find a more complete collection of popular music in all its myriad forms anywhere else on the Internet. While some of the rarer selections might not be as pristine as we're used to when it comes to audio or video quality, a great many of them pre-date the digital era. Some of them, like a video recording of The Mink DeVille Band from 1978 in San Francisco, make up for their drawbacks in quality simply because of the opportunity they represent to see favoured artists at the height of their abilities when no other records of them exist.

I'm not an aficionado of online music sites, but from what I've seen of what's out there Concert Vault is definitely one of the best. In terms of organization, ease of use and diversity of content it would be hard for any site to compete. If you love music and want the opportunity to hear your favourite artists in concert without having to leave the comfort of your living room, this site will be a dream come true.

(Article first published as Music Site Review: Concert Vault on Blogcritics.)